McCarthyism Watch:
December 12, 2001 10:04 PM   Subscribe

McCarthyism Watch: "The fact that they asked for anything but flag stamps did raise a question for the clerk." At which point do the anecdotes about irrational patriotism and paranoia add up to a genuine cultural shift? I mean, stamps?
posted by muckster (52 comments total)
This big brother crap is really getting to me.
posted by fleener at 10:48 PM on December 12, 2001

... I have been asking for anything but the stupid flag stamps for years. They're so boring.

I recently took a Greyhound trip and had to turn my house upside down to find my license. I had never bothered bringing my ID with me before, but sure enough, I had to produce ID to buy my ticket.
posted by xyzzy at 11:33 PM on December 12, 2001

Yeah, this was excessive.

I'm curious, though, why they didn't want to just use metered mail?

And the real lesson here, if the goal is not to use flag stamps, pick another design and ask for that one. nobody would question you if you said "2000 Statue of Liberty stamps, please." On the other hand, saying "Anything but the international symbol for our government, please," might trip off some paranoia.

Not that things should be this way, but it is the way they are.
posted by chiheisen at 11:41 PM on December 12, 2001

A minimum-wage USPS stooge calls the cops on some jerk, they ask a few desultory questions and promptly let said jerk go? This is "[an] example of the New McCarthyism that is sweeping the country"??? Sounds more like an example of giving vague instruction to postal clerks (who, given the anthrax scare, do have cause to be on edge).

Silly, annoying -- yes -- but comparing this to The Old McCarthyism, we're doing just fine.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 11:41 PM on December 12, 2001

Some jerk, eh? I think you're overlooking the fact that someday this random jerk could (perhaps) be you.

Stating a dissenting preference or going slightly against the grain should not warrant undue attention from the authorities. Maybe they're just being careful, but this sort of thing is the calling card of McCarthyism.
posted by Kikkoman at 12:03 AM on December 13, 2001

I hate to say it, but the Fed has said that with the events of 9/11, civil liberties will be affected. This is an unfortunated state of affairs, but I believe that it is called for.

Is this McCarthyism? I don't think so. Is the potential for McCarthyism present? Hugely. Hopefully, America has realized the mistakes of the past, enough so that we can eliminate those mistakes in the present. It is/will be a fine line to walk.

Agreed, the circumstances surrounding the "stamp situation" are somewhat silly. The whole thing could have been avoided if the people had gone about their stamp purchasing in a smarter manner. Not only do the officials have to do their part, but the rest of the population must think about how they do things.
posted by ashbury at 12:22 AM on December 13, 2001

Three people so far blaming the guy who was harrassed, not the guys doing the harrassment. There is no justification for this kind of thing. It sounds like the sort of things we would expect from totalitarian police states.

For me looking on from abroad, it's exactly like McCarthyism. The sense that your patriotic duty is more important than anything else. People get harrassed for daring to think in a way that doesn't support the Government 100%.
posted by salmacis at 12:32 AM on December 13, 2001

This time it's somebody with stamps. And all they really do is delay the sale of stamps. Delayed mailings from an activist group is not a big problem.

But being wary of anyone who expresses a preference for something without the flag on it is a bad thing. The man was buying stamps, which are harmless unless you're allergic to the glue. These are not weapons, and he didn't leave anything at the post office. This is a normal purchase, made every day.

The guy expressed a preference for the design. Is it at all improper to think "you know, we are opposing a major U.S. policy. Maybe flag stamps are not a good idea" and ask for another design? Would you fault a Democratic group for asking for something other than Eisenhower stamps?

Even then, all he did was say "not the flag stamps." He didn't say "Not the ones with the symbol of all that is evil," nor did he proclaim "Death to America!"

In this environment, I'd guess terrorists and other assorted evil-doers would go out of their way to ask for flag stamps.

McCarthyism? Probably not. Dangerous overreaction? Definitely.

Salmacis: I don't think he was at fault, but I do think he was impractical. If you know someone is going to be irrational, you bear a certain responsibility for the outsome of your dealing with them. Besides, "blame" is rarely only with one person.
posted by chiheisen at 12:50 AM on December 13, 2001

Um, Salmacis, What You Expect From Totalitarian Police States is this:
  1. Muller and Mandell never get a chance to operate Voices in the Wilderness in the first place, or any other group even slightly critical of government policy
  2. They get arrested long before the stamp incident
  3. They get thrown in jail with no notice to their families or co-workers
  4. They get tortured
  5. Perhaps they get executed
  6. Their families receive a bill for the cost of the bullets
  7. Their co-workers get arrested in a widening circle
That's what you expect from totalitarian police states. What we saw here is
  1. Some twerp acts all snarky with the prole at the counter
  2. The prole, poorly trained and already on a hair trigger, calls the cops
  3. The cops come to make sure everything's okay
  4. Everything is okay
  5. Everyone goes home, feeling like a complete idiot
  6. Muller and Mandell become overnight heroes of the Left and end up getting more publicity than their crappy little organization ever got before
When one confuses a stupid little bureaucratic blunder with genuine evil, it diminishes one's ability to perceive and to oppose genuine evil when it really does appear.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:14 AM on December 13, 2001

Its about liability

I never even thought about that. Good angle. But either way it's paranoia.

It works much like plane crashes -- the odds that you'll be involved are astoundingly slim, but it grabs all the attention, so people worry. Evildoers (love that word) grab lots of attention, so people are worried over something that is not really a threat.
posted by chiheisen at 1:46 AM on December 13, 2001

I don't like to go butting my nose into a potentially flame-worthy thread, but they didn't just 1) ask for stamps without flags on them. That, while mildly suspicious, isn't enough in my mind at least to trigger a warning. But when you combine that with the following:

2) wanted a large quantity of stamps
3) paid for them in cash
4) the U.S. mail has been used as a vector of attack from persons unknown recently

I believe, while I might not have reacted that way myself, that the reaction was not overly harsh. It consisted of them being asked questions. It did not consist of them getting arrested, or of them being restrained in any way, as far as I could tell. In fact, they weren't even compelled to answer the questions or meet with the inspector (although I suppose you can argue that they would have been if they had refused).

In sum, both sides have justification for what they did, and both sides acted reasonably, although both sides could probably have been smarter about the way they approached the whole thing.

By the way, except for perhaps the column heading, the article seemed to be pretty balanced and didn't seem to put either side in an intentionally bad light.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 1:58 AM on December 13, 2001

Oh, but I do think it was dumb of the PO to make them come back the next day to get stamps. My guess is they wanted a postal inspector to wait for them the next day. But maybe they're trying to implement a waiting period for stamps like they did for guns.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 2:04 AM on December 13, 2001

Am-I-McCarthyist-Or-Not? I would have to rate this at 2 out of 10. It's a ridiculous story, but in the end what it comes down to is just poor training.

We've had plenty of people whose heart is in the right place do the wrong thing at the airports. "Excuse me officer, that foreign looking chap over there is stroking his beard in a funny way. Don't you think you should check it out?" Airports and Post Offices are both extremely valid security concerns - they involve large numbers of the public. The people who work there, in view of certain recent high-profile security breaches, obviously know this. They just don't know what to do about it, and often end up doing something laughable like this.

Now if there was an official or unofficial policy of investigating anyone exhibiting unpatriotic or un-American behaviour - that would be McCarthyism. And that would be stupid as well, because as we all know that McCarthyism does not national security make.
posted by dlewis at 2:07 AM on December 13, 2001

Grue, you're probably right. I imagine the Voices in the Wilderness folks calling in all their friends for a night of green tea and stamp-licking, as they mail out their new issue with the cover story Why is the US government arresting Muslims instead of home-grown extremists? and on page 4, Why is the US government restricting civil liberties, even as they let homegrown extremists run free?.
posted by dhartung at 2:11 AM on December 13, 2001

I think I would get suspicious too if someone paid for 4,000 stamps with cash. Let's see... I believe first class stamps are 39 cents, so .39*4000= $1560. Even if it wasn't first class, it still probably would be over $100. Who pays cash for 4,000 stamps in the first place unless they didn't want people to know who bought 4,000 stamps? They were allowed to buy the stamps, they weren't arrested, their office wasn't searched, nothing bad happened to them except perhaps they were delayed a day in obtaining the stamps (I don't think it was clear in the article whether the post office had sufficient amounts of stamp in the office). So what was the problem?
posted by gyc at 4:01 AM on December 13, 2001

The clerk probably would have thought it was weird, but not necessarily troubling if they were just buying a grand worth of stamps, but requesting a negative (Anything but the flag) instead of a positive (Statue of Liberty stamps, please) on top of that tipped the scales. I figure if Joe Q. Public wandered in and asked for a book of stamps, any kind but the flag, they never would have called the police. I think this was a cumulative reaction to the whole, rather than just the rejection of the flag. Anybody got $5.60 and some spare time to test that theory today?
posted by headspace at 4:26 AM on December 13, 2001

Did any of you consider that the particular Post Office branch may not have HAD 4000 non-flag stamps on-hand? That would certainly account for their having to wait until the next day.

These guys either knew going into this that they would create suspicion or they were as clueless as the kid in the airport whose book cover featured dynamite.

When you prod a rattlesnake with a stick, every once in awhile you get bit.
posted by mischief at 4:49 AM on December 13, 2001

Now I've heard it all! Someone blaming the poor bloke who wasn't allowed to fly because of the book he was reading...

From the comments I see here, the paranoia in the States right now is just astonishing. Buying stamps is not "prodding a rattlesnake with a stick". Paying cash for something is not suspicious behaviour.

People are saying this was just an over-reaction from people who were only trying to do the right thing. That's as maybe, but don't most people usually try to do the right thing? McCarthyist witch-hunters, the kinds of people who reported their neighbours for Communist tendancies thought they were doing the right thing.
posted by salmacis at 5:18 AM on December 13, 2001

According to the USPS website, we should "Order a coil of 100 United We Stand Stamps to show your support for our country in the wake of 9-11-01." IMO, this isn't McCarthyism; it's wrap-self-in-the-flag jingoistic nationalism.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:34 AM on December 13, 2001

Maybe it WAS the quantity or maybe it WAS the fact that cash was used to purchase the stamps, but suppose it was someone like Clayton Waagner buying the stamps for his anthrax threats on abortion clinics. If he'd asked for 4000 American Flag stamps, do you think the clerk would have been as suspicious?
posted by eptitude at 5:37 AM on December 13, 2001

IMO, this isn't McCarthyism; it's wrap-self-in-the-flag jingoistic nationalism.

Or regular Americans showing support for their country during a war. Crazy, I know. But possible.
posted by owillis at 5:39 AM on December 13, 2001

A minimum-wage USPS stooge

is that all they pay postal workers?

the Fed has said that with the events of 9/11, civil liberties will be affected. ... I believe that it is called for.

feh. liberty is worth living with risk. only politicians promise you a safe world, and they only say it to get your vote. you're no safer now than you were six months ago, only now, you're willing to trade away a bit of your freedom to have some ass in a suit coo soothing platitudes to make you feel better and give you an excuse to return to the state of blissful ignorance of pre-9/11.

"It is an argument of some that "rights" are merely social constructs, maintained in their dignity by the force of the ruling power - and subject, in all reality, to the effective administration of that power.

There is a great deal of truth to that; however, in acceptance of this argument (as opposed to a belief in inalienable, or in God-given, rights) there is a tacit refusal to dignify one of the most basic principles that we use in the definition of rights.

That is the principle of inherence - or of preexistence.

To argue, as some do, that there are no "rights" - that the social constructs, defended by force, can be abrogated at will by the power of Man's law... to essentially invalidate the entire premise upon which our nation is based."
posted by tolkhan at 5:57 AM on December 13, 2001

Paying cash for something is not suspicious behaviour.

Actually, paying with a large amount of cash is one characteristic used in criminal profiling.

Also, how much spin did the Progressive throw into this story? I like to mock the government as much as anyone, but let's get real here: these guys probably wanted to make a scene and get some publicity for their cause. It's not like they were arrested, hauled downtown and interrogated.
posted by mischief at 6:13 AM on December 13, 2001

Whether it's McCarthyism appears to depend on your dictionary and your political party, but it sounds exactly like the sort of thing paranoid Republican senator McCarthy would have supported. "Don't like 'merican flags, eh? What sort of un-American bastards are they?! Get the cops down there to check 'em out."

One of my dictionaries (from the commies at Random House) says McCarthyism is "the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, esp. of pro-Communist activity, in many instances unsupported by proof or based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence." It defines authoritarian as when "individual freedom is held as completely subordinate to the power or authority of the state, centered either in one person or a small group that is not constitutionally accountable to the people."

To me, it sounds as if the US is not there yet, but it has certainly moved much closer to authoritarianism and McCarthyist paranoia than it used to be before Bush and Ashcroft. It also sounds as if plenty of Americans like it that way. But when we land in our black UN helicopters and take over, such wackos and their flag stamps will be the first to go.
posted by pracowity at 6:37 AM on December 13, 2001

> But when we land in our black UN helicopters and take
> over, such wackos and their flag stamps will be the first
> to go.

Not if my little green buddies in the saucers land first.

> To me, it sounds as if the US is not there yet, but it has
> certainly moved much closer to authoritarianism and
> McCarthyist paranoia than it used to be before Bush and
> Ashcroft.

I take it you weren't around for Nixon/Agnew/Haldeman/Erlichman/Mitchell? There have been waves of hard-hats-with-flag-decals before, though this may indeed be shaping up to be another one.
posted by jfuller at 6:58 AM on December 13, 2001

4,000 stamps. Hadn't these people heard of bulk mail?
posted by dagnyscott at 7:30 AM on December 13, 2001

or email.
posted by tolkhan at 7:40 AM on December 13, 2001

It doesn't really matter how strangely these people may have been acting: they weren't doing anything illegal or dangerous, and they should not have been harassed.

You can avoid official persecution in most countries by acting normal. That's nothing special. But it's a very cool thing if you can act weird and still expect not to be bothered by the authorities. I would like the country I live in to be such a place, but incidents like this one suggest that it isn't. I'm not sure whether it ever was, but it's disappointing all the same.

posted by Mars Saxman at 7:59 AM on December 13, 2001

Or regular Americans showing support for their country during a war. Crazy, I know. But possible

owillis, I can't speak for Carol Anne, but I think what's unhealthily authoritarian is not people choosing to use flag stamps because they're feeling patriotic (more power to 'em), but the U.S. Postal Service -- one of our public institutions -- exhorting us to express our patriotism in our choice of stamps. Right there, it implies me, "and if you don't, well, mebbe you don't love your country enough..."

I don't call that McCarthyism; and I think that the clerk's miscall was a natural result of the state-of-vague-alert we've all been asked to adopt.

But I don't have to like it. The phrase "chilling effect" is operative here -- we're letting fear impinge on normal and healthy live-and-let-live society, which includes deciding for ourselves how we're going to pay for stamps and whether we like ones with flags on them or not.

As Mars says, having the freedom to "act weird" -- which for me includes the freedom to not be pressured by institutions to "act normal" is a very cool thing. I don't know why we're in such a rush to abandon it.
posted by BT at 8:35 AM on December 13, 2001

I keep thinking about the guy who said he only was interested in knowing how to steer the plane.
I don't buy the flag stamps either, but I would not be so stupid as to put on an anti-jingo skit for a government employee. I agree with Mars, but chiheisen made a lot of sense too.
posted by thirteen at 9:03 AM on December 13, 2001

You know, this whole debacle could have been avoided if they went out and rented a postage meter. They're not that expensive, and a hella lot faster and easier than putting stamps on huge mailings.

Plus, there's no objectionable symbolism at all, unless you have something against wavy red lines.
posted by me3dia at 9:05 AM on December 13, 2001

These guys either knew going into this that they would create suspicion

maybe they did. maybe some people do things like this with the intention of stirring up some trouble to make the news and spotlight the irrationality we're sinking into, and to show that the curtailed civil liberties we're willing to accept can also be used against us and not the would-be terrorist only.

or maybe they just didn't think there'd be anything wrong with asking for a large number of available alternative design stamps.

postage meters are for commies.
posted by tolkhan at 9:19 AM on December 13, 2001

I hate wavy red lines!
posted by fidelity at 9:22 AM on December 13, 2001

Thank you fleener, salmacis, and tolkham.
I stopped in Seattle's great new temporary library to get a photo of the cool architecture and noticed some agitated radio ping pong between the guards who were glaring at me. So I go over to say politely hello and that no, your crack security team glaring at me isn't really working for my pic. The guy was visibly upset, top lip quivering and all. All my smile did was to change his fear to agression. I calmly asserted that I was within my rights and when they realised that they were in for a lecture, they naturally yielded to the path of least resistance.
It was a drag being singled out and having to waste time on these numbskulls, but I really worry about those citizens who are too afraid or unaware of their rights to stand up for themselves. America is the greatest country in the world because standing up for each citizen's liberty frees us all to work for a better future together.
posted by roboto at 11:30 AM on December 13, 2001

Oops. God bless America and spell check!
posted by roboto at 11:39 AM on December 13, 2001

roboto: I urge you to file a complaint with the Seattle Public Library. Deborah Jacobs would surely redirect the security guards' mission.
posted by Carol Anne at 11:40 AM on December 13, 2001

Here's a thought: what if they had intentions of doing something illegal? The whole arguement here would be invalidated if these people were investigated (due to their behavior in the PO) and found to have evil ideas in their minds? The PO clerk would be a hero, yes?

This goes back to what I said earlier--civil liberties are at stake right now, and we must either accept that or fight it.
posted by ashbury at 1:02 PM on December 13, 2001

I think that given the mailed anthrax and anthrax scares, that this was not so unjustified. For all the postal workers know, these guys could have had 4, 000 anthrax filled letters ready to mail out. That would have been a bad thing.

The fact that they wanted to pay with cash and get so many stamps I think would be very suspicious. On top of that, they basically announce that they have a dislike for the american flag. I think that tipped the scales but was not the main thing.

Hindsight is 20/20, but the postal clerk was just being cautious in light of recent events. The questioning seemed to be harmless enough and they let them go.
posted by daser at 1:15 PM on December 13, 2001

Crazy, I know.

End The Personality Test Meme Now!

Yes, Oliver, it's a matter of record... Of course, post-preview, what I want to know is what happened to the Paranoia: High results, hmm?

Also, what I want to know is just what kind of robot is roboto?
posted by y2karl at 3:42 PM on December 13, 2001

these guys could have had 4, 000 anthrax filled letters ready to mail out

or, the person in front of them who bought the packet of twelve stamps could have twelve anthrax filled letters ready to mail out.
posted by tolkhan at 5:31 PM on December 13, 2001

Yes, Oliver, it's a matter of record
If personality tests are still around... the terrorists have won.
posted by owillis at 6:53 PM on December 13, 2001

::blowing snot out of nose laughing:::
posted by y2karl at 7:54 PM on December 13, 2001

"huh ... huh ... we, like, need a buttload of stamps"
"yeah, stamps, heh heh"
"dude, you like better not give us those crappy flag stamps. all this flag stuff is a load of crap --"
"yeah yeah, flags suck, he, he he heh"

"um, one moment boys ..."

"hey, i think that she's like, calling the cops and stuff"
"whoah! lets like, get outta here!"
"shut up you wuss! don't you know that its like, cool to get the cops called on us? huh, huh, she thinks that i'm some kinda badass"
"yeah, yeah, bbbbadass! b-b-b-badass! like, don't mess with us mailman chick"
"dude, be quiet. I think that we're gonna get, like, you know, perse... persecuted, or something. people will think we're cool."
"heh heh heh, persecution is cool, yeah!"
posted by hipstertrash at 9:33 PM on December 13, 2001

From Matthew Rothschild's article which kicked off The Progressive's examination of how dissenters are treated in the USA, post 9/11:
"Welcome to the New McCarthyism. A chill is descending across the country, and it's frostbiting immigrants, students, journalists, academics, and booksellers. 'I'm terrified,' says Ellen Schrecker, author of 'Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America' (Princeton University, 1999). 'What concerns me is we're not seeing an enormous outcry against this whole structure of repression that's being rushed into place by the Bush Administration.'"
posted by Carol Anne at 5:52 AM on December 14, 2001

The clerk is at the busiest time of the year for postal workers; she might have been feeling a little bit frazzled. Then these two guys showed up with 1300 dollars in cash and wanted 4000 stamps. That's an awful lot of stamps, enough to send anthrax to every post office in the country. They seemed to want to be anonymous and untraceable and then expressed an apparent dislike for the American flag. This might not seem suspicious to most of you, but this clerk was probably mindful of the two postal workers who died of anthrax not too long ago, and might have decided to err on the safe side. I know that if I were a window clerk in that position, I wouldn't hesitate to call the police.

Or maybe she heard some overeducated idiot call her a "minimum wage prole" and was just feeling snarky.
posted by faceonmars at 6:21 AM on December 14, 2001

"just feeling snarky"

Damned excellent observation there, faceonmars, and it is probably closer to the truth than anything in the Progressive article.
posted by mischief at 7:10 AM on December 14, 2001

I'm amazed at the level of rationalization some on this forum are using to justify a ridiculous action by a clerk at the post office... No, this isn't Nazi Germany or anything, but it's absurd. They were buying fucking stamps, not ammunition, explosives, or -- gasp -- box-cutters...

If they were plotting some anthrax scenario, why even go to the post office and risk exposure? And why call attention to yourself? You can buy stamps from a machine or a supermarket...

If there weren't 4000 Statue of Liberty stamps on hand, that's fine... But they called the cops, interrogated the customers, then questioned them again the next day when they returned for their stamps. It was a ridiculous over-reaction to a simple transaction... "Hmmmm... no flags, eh? Must not be with us... therefore, must be with the terrorists!"

I'm probably more alarmed that people on this list think what happened was rational and reasonable than the fact that it happened it all...
posted by mattpusateri at 7:49 AM on December 14, 2001

That's an awful lot of stamps, enough to send anthrax to every post office in the country

posted by tolkhan at 8:07 AM on December 14, 2001

Relevant USPS facts: "The U. S. Postal Service (USPS) employs 852,285 workers in 300 job categories for positions at 39,000 post offices, branches, stations, and community post offices throughout the United States... Pay starts at $22,340 per year for full time career employees at the PS-1-AA pay grade and increases to $43,101 at the PS-10-O top pay grade."
posted by Carol Anne at 8:18 AM on December 14, 2001

Corrected link for above.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:19 AM on December 14, 2001

"people on this list think what happened was rational and reasonable" I doubt anyone here thinks that the events as described by the Progressive would be rational and reasonable. Rather, I think most of us are trying to see through the spin and second guess what actually happened. Further, this incident may not have been an institutional reaction but an isolated incident, much like the most recent racism suit against Denny's.
posted by mischief at 9:22 AM on December 14, 2001

mischief: Discrimination against African-American and Hispanic customers at Denny's appears to have been company policy--not isolated incidents. Even black Secret Service agents were subjected to poor treatment at Denny's.

"In 1993, Denny's restaurant chain fell under an uncomfortable spotlight as it faced the first of several lawsuits and thousands of claims of racial discrimination of its the end of 1995, the company had paid $54 million to 295,000 aggrieved customers and their lawyers, the largest public accommodation settlement ever (Rice, 1996)."
posted by Carol Anne at 4:03 PM on December 15, 2001

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